Fair Haristeen, doctor of veterinary medicine, and his wife, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, loved to steal a Saturday and cruise the back roads of central Virginia. It reminded them of their courting days, back in high school, when Fair, bruised from Friday night’s football game, would pick up Harry, dirty from the stable, and they’d drive around in his 1958 Chevy pickup. Now, over two decades later, Fair was at the wheel of their station wagon, Harry beside him, the pets in the back seat, as they rode through the countryside.
Mrs. Murphy, the tiger cat, Pewter, her gray, overweight sidekick, and Tucker, the corgi, usually accompanied their people everywhere except in high heat. On a mild day like today, windows down a crack, the three could sleep or chat while the humans talked.
“Perfect weather,” Fair declared.
October 12 was indeed a ravishing fall day—early fall, for the summer warmth lingered late this year. Forests looked spray-painted with yellow, orange, flaming red, deep red, old gold.
“Hey, Miranda got the respiratory flu.” Harry mentioned a former co-worker and dear friend. “She’s swearing that drinking electrolytes will cure her. She saw it on TV.”
Fair shook his head. “Electrolytes will help, but our beloved Miranda seems susceptible to quacks.”
Watching the passing scenery, Pewter noticed a lovely yellow clapboard farmhouse. “Quack—duck. Why call a crook a quack?”
“I don’t know,” Tucker replied. The corgi was well used to Pewter’s inquiring mind. “They also use the term ‘snake oil.’ A quack sells snake oil. It’s confusing.”
“Ha!” Pewter whooped. “If they’ll buy snake oil, maybe we can get them hooked on catnip.”
“Humans don’t sniff catnip,” Tucker replied with dignity.
“They can learn.” The gray cat spoke with conviction.
“Pewter, sometimes I think you’re cracked as well as fat,” the dog unwisely said.
“Fat!” Pewter raged.
“You need a seat all your own. Every time we take a turn, the flab on your belly sways,” Tucker teased.
Pewter lashed out, a quick right to the shoulder.
Tucker growled, showing her fangs.
“That is enough!” Harry turned around.
“I haven’t done a thing.” Mrs. Murphy distanced herself from the combatants, who now rounded on her.
“Brown-noser!” Pewter whacked the tiger cat, who gave as good as she got.
The hissing and barking irritated Fair to the point where he pulled over to the side of the road, near where Hester Martin’s vegetable and fruit stand was located.
Harry got out of the car, opened the back door. “I am going to give you such a smack.”
All three animals jumped to the far back of the Volvo station wagon. Harry walked around to the rear of the car and opened the hatch door; the animals jumped back into their original seats.
Slamming both doors shut, Harry cursed as Fair couldn’t help but laugh. She walked over to the driver’s side; he had the window down.
“They know how to pluck your last nerve,” said Fair, laughing.
“Yours, too. I’m not the one who pulled the car over.” Harry looked down the road at the produce stand, a small white clapboard building with a large overhang, goods displayed in orderly, colorful rows. “Hey, let’s get some pattypan squash. Bet Hester still has some.” She walked around the car, getting in the passenger side before turning to face her animal tormentors. “If I hear one peep, one sniff, one hiss while I am shopping, no food tonight. Got it?”
“Hateful.” Pewter turned her back on Harry.
As Tucker hung her head, Mrs. Murphy, the tiger cat, loudly defended herself. “I didn’t do one thing.”
“Of course not, the perfect puss.” Pewter curled her upper lip.
Fair coasted to the stand, where Hester—orange apron, black jeans, and an orange shirt—was talking to customers, most of whom lived in Crozet or nearby.
“I’ll stay here.” Fair knew how Hester could go on, plus Buddy Janss was there, all three hundred pounds of him, and he could outtalk Hester.
Orange and black bunting festooned the roof overhang. Scarecrows flanked the outdoor wooden cartons overflowing with squashes, pumpkins, every kind of apple imaginable. Inside, one could buy a good sandwich. Little ghosts floated from the rafters; big green eyes glowed in the room’s upper corners. Brilliantly gold late corn and huge mums and zinnias added to the color.
Almost as big as Buddy, a sign sat catty-cornered to the entrance, announcing the community Halloween Hayride to raise money for the Crozet Library. No doubt Tazio Chappars, an architect, had designed the impressive sign. She worked hard for the library and the sign really grabbed you: From a large drawn skeleton, one bony arm actually reached out to get your attention.
Hester looked up. “Harry Haristeen, I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
Buddy turned. “How’d you do with your sunflowers?”
Buddy, a farmer who rented thousands of acres along with cultivating his own holdings, enjoyed Harry’s foray into niche farming. Who knew better than Buddy the cost of equipment and implements for wheat, corn, soybeans? Harry had made a wise choice in focusing on her field of sunflowers, her quarter acre of Petit Manseng grapes, and the ginseng she grew down by the strong deep creek that divided her property from the old Jones farm.
“Pretty good,” she said, not wanting to brag that this year’s field of sunflowers was her biggest yet. “How’s your year so far?”
He hooked his thumbs in his overalls. “Tell you what, girl, that mini-drought thinned out my corn crop. I did better than most because my lower acres received enough rain. Others didn’t. Never saw anything like it. On one side of the road the corn would be twisted right up, and on the other just as plump as you’d please. The corn behind the old schoolhouses looks poorly.”
Hester jumped in. “Government’s fault. All that stuff they have circling around up there in space. Gotta affect us.”
Both Harry and Buddy nodded politely, for Hester was a little in space herself. Sometimes a lot out there. Middle-aged, good-looking, with glossy light brown hair hanging to her shoulders, she applied just enough makeup to draw attention to her symmetry and health. Every small town as well as big city has its Hesters, it’s just they can’t hide in the small towns. Good-looking people, often bright, but they don’t quite fit in and often they never marry. Hester had gone to Mary Baldwin, excelled in her studies, but came back over the Blue Ridge Mountains to run this roadside stand. Her brother, more ambitious, moved to Houston right out of the College of William and Mary. He had perfect timing, hitting Texas on the cusp of a building boom and making the most of it. Her parents had built the stand more as a hobby than a business, but it flourished. Her father had been a banker; her mother had run the stand. These days Hester seemed happy enough, engaged with a steady stream of regulars and tourists.
Buddy kindly semi-agreed. “What scares me is what we don’t know. I mean, just in general, look at this drought and, hey, we came out a lot better off than they did in the Midwest, where everything burned up. Right now our water table is good. I planted more Silver Queen corn because I think the weather will stay warm longer. I’ll get it harvested and if not, I’ll make a lot of critters happy.” He let out a booming laugh.
Hester asked, “You’ve got crop coverage, Buddy? After the drought of 1988, surely you started paying for an insurance policy, revenue protection.”
“I do. I elected an eighty percent revenue protection policy. Yes, I did learn from 1988 but, girl, every time I turn around I’m writing another check and I see my return diminish. Farming gets harder and harder,” said the well-organized man, a true steward of the land. “Just to keep up, I have to plant more acreage. Plant an early crop, then come back and throw soybeans down. I feel like I’m running to stay in place.”
“Think we all do,” Hester agreed.
“Only way I can buy or rent—and renting makes sense in the short term—is to sell some of my land closer in to Crozet or Charlottesville.”
Hester’s shoulders snapped back. “Don’t do that, Buddy. Don’t ever do that.”
“Before I forget, Hester, do you have any pattypan squash?” Harry didn’t want to keep Fair or the arguing animals in limbo.
“I do. Wait until you see it.” Hester nodded to Buddy, who winked at Harry.
The two women walked inside, where there was crooknecked squash, acorn squash, and Harry’s favorite, cream-white pattypan squash that looked like scalloped discuses.
“Beautiful! And the right size.”
“Right about now the pattypan is usually over, but this year with the long, long summer, I’m still getting some,” said Hester. “The melons are over, though. I do so love melons. Before I forget, now, you and Fair are buying tickets for the hayride. You must. The library is built but there’s a lot to be done. We need $59,696 just for adult computers and, oh my, the adult area needs tables and we need furniture for a meditative reading room. The list is endless.”
“Of course we’ll buy tickets. I’ll even buy tickets for Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker.”
“If that gray cat of yours gets any fatter, I’ll have to find a special wagon and pony just for her.” Hester laughed.
“You’re looking pretty Halloweeny yourself, all orange and black.”
“Oh, this is just my warm-up. Next week I’ll be out here in my witch’s costume.”
“So long as you don’t scare customers away.”
“I could be a Halloween fairy except I’ve never seen a Halloween fairy.”
They kept chatting as Harry picked out two succulent squashes, then paid at the cash register run by Lolly Currie, a young woman looking for a better job but making ends meet at Hester’s stand until then.
Back on the road, Fair grinned. “That is the shortest time you have ever spent at Martin’s Stand.”
“Buddy Janss helped me out, because as soon as I paid for my squash, he came back to chat up Hester, about late produce deliveries. I swear, Buddy has put on more weight. His chins now have chins.”
“Buddy may be fat but he’s light on his feet. He was a hell of a football player in high school and college. It’s a pity that retired linemen run to fat so often.”
“Boxers, too.” She watched rolling hills pass by.
“Maybe you should go live with Buddy. The two of you could be Team Tubby.” Tucker knew this would start a fight.
“Don’t,” Mrs. Murphy counseled in vain.
“Bubble Butt. Poop Breath!” Pewter hissed loudly.
Harry twisted around in the front seat just in time to see Pewter hook the dog’s shoulder with one claw.
“Ouch,” Tucker yelped.
“Next, your eyes.”
“Pull over, honey. There will be fur all over the car if I don’t stop this right now.”
He pulled over on the side of the road. The field on the north side of the two-lane road was jammed with corn. Morrowdale Farm usually put these fields in good hay, but this year row after row of healthy corn filled them. They had somehow escaped the small drought.
Opening the door to again castigate the backseat passengers, Harry remarked, “This has to be one of the best-run and prettiest farms in Albemarle County.”
They looked out to the scarecrow in the middle of the field, currently being mobbed by crows.
“I thought scarecrows were supposed to frighten crows,” Fair said.
“Those crows are having a party. Look at that. Pulling on the wig under the hat.” Harry laughed. “What are all those birds doing?”
Fair stepped out of the car to stare intently as a crow plucked out an eyeball.
“Honey, that’s not a scarecrow.”
“Tucker, come back!” Harry called to the corgi as the dog raced across the cornfield.
Fair, in his shock, hadn’t closed the station wagon door, so all three animals had rushed out after deciding to see what was going on.
The corn rustled as the strong little dog bounded through.
The two cats also sped down a row, curiosity raging.
“Selective hearing.” Harry shook her head as she followed, starting into a corn row.
“Honey, they’ll be back. You should stay where you are, otherwise you might destroy footprints or some other kind of evidence.”
She stopped, turned to face her husband. “You’re right.”
“I’m not sure you want to see the corpse anyway.”
Harry leaned up against the Volvo. “Death really is ugly and this one is probably especially so. But, Fair, why truss someone up like a scarecrow?”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Clever, really. How many people passed by this field on Garth Road? Plenty, I bet, and still no one stopped or called the sheriff’s department. The only reason we did was because of the ruckus raised by our passengers, and then the crows caught our eye, and . . . well.”
As the married couple waited for the sheriff’s department to arrive, the three investigating animals reached the base of the scarecrow.
A blue-black crow perched on the straw hat looked down. “Beat it!” he squawked.
Mrs. Murphy knew she could climb the dead man’s leg if need be, so she stood on her hind legs reaching far up, feeling the cold flesh under the faux scarecrow’s pants. “I can climb up and shoo all of you away,” she threatened the birds.
A second crow in this mob, on an outstretched arm, gibed, “Go ahead. We’ll fly away, circle, and come right on back.”
The first crow opened his wings to their full span, the light picking up the blue highlights. “What do you want with this feast? Cats don’t eat carrion.”
Pewter ignored the question and asked one of her own: “Did you see the scarecrow being set up?”
The second crow spoke. “No, but he hasn’t been here long. We caught a whiff as we flew over this cornfield on our way to Shelford Farm. When we tear off a juicy piece of meat, some blood still drips.”
Few scarecrows are well dressed. Neither was this one. It wore a drab, wrinkled shirt over a red undershirt. Worn, old pants, rope for a belt, took care of his bottom half. Old work boots, the sole separated from the left one, covered his feet. The straw hat, edges frayed, hatband missing, gave the fellow the final country touch.
As blood pools in the extremities, the crows provided valuable information. The scarecrow wouldn’t show the signs of rigor mortis because the body was tied, arms outstretched, legs tied down, too. No blood was moving, the body temperature had cooled down, but this was a fresh kill, relatively.
Mrs. Murphy noticed that the eyes had been plucked out and a lot of flesh had already been eaten off his face and hands. Eventually, the crows would have torn through the clothing.
Excerpted from The Litter of the Law by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown. Copyright © 2013 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.